I’ve gotten worried that some on the progressive Left have become too disillusioned by our corrupt, broken political system that they have lost sight of the value of political action – by which I mean action in the electoral and legislative spheres aimed at changing government policy. I am worried that some are beginning to see the political system as so thoroughly corrupt that it is hopeless and not worth the effort to change, with some proposing to focus mainly on work in the civil society sphere in an attempt to change the culture. I don’t think that we’ve gotten to the point yet where people have totally given up – but it’s worth reminding ourselves why political action is worthwhile.
Such a reaction is entirely understandable. Older progressives have seen decade after decade of metastasizing right-wing reaction and the consequent governance failure – the last great liberal political victories came almost fifty years ago with the Civil Rights Acts in the 1960s. And young progressives had their optimism and trust cynically manipulated and shattered by the transformation of the candidacy of hope and change into the presidency of mostly-more-of-the-same.
Giving up on politics is a bad thing, strategically and morally. It is actually the worst thing to do, because if you cede the political sphere without fighting, the would-be authoritarians win. That’s what they’ve wanted you to do all along.
Strategically, the Left cannot win without combining protest and social activism with political action to change the law and government policy. Changing the culture is, of course, a necessary and laudable goal. But the political system IS part of the culture, and what happens in the political sphere also redounds back onto the non-political parts of life. What happens in politics does not stay in politics, so if the political system remains right-wing then the culture will too, to a large degree. Why? First, because government policies affect the entirety of the rest of the culture, from education to the internet to the media to economic life to health care to, well everything. Aristotle didn’t call politics the architectonic – overarching – human activity without reason; politics and government affect all things. And second, because the ideas that are common among a political elite tend to become the common ideas among the apolitical masses, since those ideas get widely promoted and heard.
The civil rights movement, which achieved the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, demonstrated the effectiveness of combining protest and cultural change with changes to law and government; indeed, much of the civil rights effort was aimed at achieving precisely such legislation. It ended Jim Crow segregation and the political exclusion of African Americans. Of course changing the law didn’t change everything, and efforts must continue to rid the culture of racism, including ongoing efforts to politically marginalize minority voters. But those legislative changes ended formal political exclusion, and helped reduce it (although not eliminate it) in practice as well. Furthermore, those legislative successes helped to begin or to advance the political processes by which other oppressed groups, including women and gays and lesbians, have made a great deal of both political and cultural progress. And I would point out that it was the failure to achieve similar legislation regarding economic, as well as political, exclusion that has allowed continued higher rates of poverty among African Americans.
Morally, giving up on political activity, on trying to help direct the laws under which we all live, is to give up on your own liberty and that of everyone else. Being politically active is part of living a good life, an autonomous life, a life in which you both have a say about the rules that determine how your life will go, and a life in which you contribute to the good of society and your fellow citizens. Society being a condition in which individual people live elbow-to-elbow with other individuals, freedom is not just being able to do whatever you want: it has to mean having an equal say with others in making the rules by which everyone will live. And if you do strive to make the laws better, you can take satisfaction in contributing to improving everyone’s conditions. Humans are social animals, which means we are political animals.
Do we even have a right to give up on politics? This is America, the birthplace of the modern idea of democracy. If we give up, we are giving up on not just on politics, and not just on our highly corrupted democracy, but we are giving up on the idea of democracy, and on the idea that it is worth saving here. The way to fix a corrupted political system is to increase the level of political activity of the people, not to wash our hands of the dirty system.
Do we have a right to give up, when in earlier generations didn't? When slaves didn’t? When unionists, suffragists, civil rights marchers, feminists, gay rights activists, and Vietnam protestors didn’t? Democracy has always been a struggle. And our predecessors lived in times when class differences, monopoly control, racism, and sexism were even stronger than it is now, and when the counter-reaction was stronger, harsher, more violent, and certainly more lethal. Our predecessors didn’t give up on winning political power to make legislative changes in order to bring and end to injustices, and neither should we. We carry on the torch of the struggle of democracy.
I have said it before and I will say it again: look to Wisconsin, where very large protests have been combined with a persistent, and so far productive political campaign to recall state legislators and the reactionary governor. Political life, democracy as a way of life, are all worth participating in: they are how you are heard, and what gives you power. No one ever said it wouldn't be an easy victory. But if you give up on politics you are sure to lose, because you haven't even tried.